About a dozen years ago, an old mate of mine approached me while I sat at the bar in my local and asked me if I could do him a favour. This guy, Des, was always involved in local community projects, like driving a school bus taking kiddies on outings, or organising bingo nights for elderly folk in a nearby hall. I’d previously helped him out lugging tables into the street for some royal celebration or other and had also stood in for him as bingo caller – luckily knowing my two fat ladies from my key of the door and all the other bingo banter having grown up with it on seaside holidays – and I expected this favour to be something similar.
“It’s the kids' Christmas party on Saturday,” he said. “I can’t be there this year because…” here he gave me some reason which, with the mists of time, I now can’t remember. “So could you stand in for me as Father Christmas?”
Well, my gut reaction was no bloody way am I dressing up as Father Christmas, as I instantly felt embarrassed just thinking about it. I can get up in a pub full of strangers and sing them a song and I have done so many a time when it wasn’t even karaoke night and have performed on open mic nights to crowds almost entirely comprised of singers and musicians. I have also been known to hold the attention of groups of people, regaling them with a flow of jokes and stories and having them rolling in the aisles, but being the man in red was a performance of an entirely different kind.
Singing and tale telling aside, which I love and feel in complete control of, I can be extremely self-conscious when put on the spot. I started to shake my head and pull that “I’d like to help, but” face, only Des wasn’t going to be put off so easily. Before a decent excuse had even come to mind, he hit me with a guilt trip.
“I don’t know anyone else I can ask to do it,” he said, a hang-dog expression appearing on his kindly face. “If you don’t step in, I think we’ll be forced to cancel the party.” I was about to say I was sorry but I couldn’t help when he nailed me with, “The kids are going to be really disappointed.”
I was trapped. Butterflies already in my stomach, even though Saturday was still several days away, and with serious misgivings, I caved in and agreed to do it. He beamed at my positive response, bought me a thank you pint and then quickly disappeared before I could change my mind. I sat there staring at my free pint, groaning inside and knowing full well I had just been manipulated and thought to myself what a nice chap Des was and also what a crafty bastard.
Saturday arrived with indecent haste in my opinion and as I awaited my 2 pm appointment at the kid’s Christmas beano, my stomach was turning loops. I paced about my flat all morning, going from room to room for no other reason than the nervous ants in my pants and at one point, I became so anxious, I found myself hanging over the bathroom sink retching. Luckily I’d been in too much of a state all morning to eat anything, so all I lost was a cup of tea and an indigestion tablet.
With thirty minutes to go, I washed my face and brushed my teeth for the third time and headed off to the hall. A couple of ladies were waiting for me at the door and before any of the kids could spot me, they ushered me to a downstairs loo, handed me my costume and left me to change and prepare for my “jolly” entrance.
My Father Christmas outfit must have been the cheapest one in the fancy dress shop and the red nylon crackled with electricity as I tried to pull it on. I got my right leg into the flimsy trousers, but as I hopped on one foot and attempted to insert the left, disaster struck and the crotch split wide open. Already a bundle of nerves, this wardrobe malfunction was all I needed.
There was only one option, so I reversed the pants and put them on back to front. The suit jacket was just long enough to cover the rip and I figured, if I didn’t bend over too far, the children wouldn’t get a tell-tale glimpse of my blue jeans. Finally, fitting the equally cheap, itchy beard into place with its attendant elastic, I perched the red hat on my head and I was ready to go.
For a few moments, I stood and took long slow breaths to calm myself down and looked myself over in the mirror. The Father Christmas who stared back at me looked more like a down and out than the man of myth, but he was going to have to do and with one last deep breath, I opened the door and prepared to meet my audience.
“Yo ho ho, hello children,” I bellowed as I strode into the hall waving cheerfully. The smaller kids turned from their games and their crisps and squash and their little faces lit up with excitement. The older children had expressions that were a good deal more suspicious, but when the organising ladies handed me a sack full of gifts, they swallowed any awkward questions and decided to play along.
The gifts were all wrapped and marked with pink and blue stickers to mark out the girls’ presents from the boys’. As I plonked myself down on a chair in the centre of the hall, I was suddenly surrounded by a sea of expectant faces and as I reached into the sack to begin the gift giving, assailed by a good few squeals of delight. There then followed half an hour of the usual have you been good this year banter and paper tearing and kids not wanting what they’d been given, but something someone else had got.
The boys got plasticine or one of those small polystyrene plane kits, the girls, either plastic necklace and brooch sets or a packet of coloured felt tips. By the time the sack was empty, many of the boys were wearing shiny necklaces, while the girls were throwing planes around the room, but each to his own.
The have you been good question reminded me of something my ex wife’s nephew had said one year when his mum had told him Santa wouldn’t come if he was naughty. He thought hard for a moment and then replied, “But I was naughty last year and he still came.” Impeccable logic which made me smile at his cheek.
While this was going on, I’d noticed two teenage girls loitering on the edge of the crowd. They were fourteen or under and I swear they were looking at me with the sort of interest of a pair of Lolita’s, hands on hips, with little secret smiles turning up the corner of their mouths. Eventually one of them caught my attention and asked if they were going to get a gift as well.
“Have you been good girls this year?” I asked, at which they looked at each other, smirking and giggling, before replying that they had indeed been good. At that, for a moment, I forgot to put on my jolly Santa voice and as I handed them their presents, I said, a bit too loudly and ironically, “Yeah, I just bet you have.” That brought more smirking, giggling and knowing looks and I suddenly came over hot and bothered and felt my face flushing as red as my floppy hat.
Finally, it was over. All the gifts were gone and I stood and said my yo ho hos and goodbyes, patting a few tousled heads and reminding them one final time to be good boys and girls. I was almost at the door when one boy, a suspicious look reappearing on his face, suddenly blurted, “That beard isn’t real. I can see the elastic.”
The eagle-eyed kiddie detective had rumbled me at the last second, but the little bugger wasn’t going to outsmart me that easily. “It’s very windy when I’m riding through the sky on my sleigh. This elastic, young man,” I said, giving it a twang, “is what keeps my hat on. It would blow away otherwise.”
He looked doubtful at this explanation, but before any more difficult questions could occur to him and I was forced to tell him that, no, he couldn’t see my sleigh because it was invisible to children, I made good my escape and was back in the downstairs toilet, lighting up the room with blue flashes of static as I stripped off my Father Christmas suit.
I was actually rather proud of myself for overcoming my Santa stage fright and if ever asked to do it again, especially now I have my own genuine white beard, my answer would be: “not a fucking snowball’s chance in hell!”
As for the torn trousers, no one ever mentioned them to me, so I’m guessing the following year they must have thrown caution to the wind and lashed out another £3.99 for a new set.